Dress for Excess

Fashion 1986

Before there was barneys, there was Nancy Reagan.

In the early eighties, the First Lady, in her tight little suits and her stiff evening gowns, Adolfos, Bill Blasses, and Galanos, epitomized what a lot of us thought fashion was. Fashion was uncomfortable and boring. Fashion was armor that protected a certain class from the rest of us. Fashion was clothes that said, “I’m rich and I take myself very seriously and I haven’t had sex since Woodstock.”

Granted, I lived in Washington at the time, but still.

Then I moved to New York.

Something strange and wonderful was happening to fashion in the city. The clothes here spoke in tongues. They said life in the city was sexy, perverse, anxious-making, and complicated. They told stories about private conversations, floating worlds, strange urges.

I looked in the department-store windows, Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, but they had the usual, what the women’s magazines called the Classic look. Ralph Lauren. Dressed for success. Where did you find the other stuff? Was there some sort of secret underground of cool clothes? Fashion speakeasies where you had to know the password in order to get in?

Turned out there was.

In its protean transformation from a discount men’s clothing store to the vortex of eighties hip, the Barneys store at 17th and Seventh was the midwife to fashion’s new status. It became the shock engine that defined a decade.

By 1986, when the women’s store opened, fashion designers had become celebrities, and supermodels had the gossip clout of rock stars. Fed as much by the street as by the atelier, the clothes became the mutable expression of our private selves. They led to epiphanies.

I still remember the night I was seduced by Yohji Yamamoto. I tried on jackets made of beautiful pinstriped black cotton, cut generously and eccentrically in shifting Cubist planes. I wore mine with a pair of narrow polished-cotton pants, overgrown black cop shoes, and a white shirt with a collar that somehow managed to reflect both Lord Byron and Charles Bukowski. When I looked in the mirror, the clothes told me things about myself I hadn’t known before.

There were other places, like the Charivari Workshop, which also understood the potent new magic of clothes. But Barneys was the high-water mark, a celebrity-studded dream emporium that merged Freud and Wall Street and Barnum & Bailey into a conduit for every lavish, elitist eighties desire.

At Barneys, you found signal fires from fashion’s farthest outposts: the tight Botticelli visions of Azzedine Alaïa, Gaultier’s red leather breastplates, Rei Kawakubo’s postapocalyptic shrouds, Demeulemeester’s vampire poets. It was probably the only store where you could buy a jacket made of M&M’s.

Barneys was not for the faint of heart—or the shallow of pocket. It danced on the knife edge of fashion, a place that demands a steely self-knowledge and a flexible if not schizophrenic sense of identity. My own metamorphoses culminated in an androgynous pregnancy when I went around looking like a gravid David Bowie. After that, the clothes I chose became less of a costume and more of a signature, as idiosyncratic as my handwriting.

By then, Barneys’ decadent citadel had come crashing down. In 1996, it filed for bankruptcy and closed the downtown store, leaving behind its lavish outpost on Madison Avenue as a monument to its own folly. And yet there was a certain aesthetic at work even then: Coming as it did at the end of an ethos, even Barneys’ downfall displayed its usual flair for timing.

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Dress for Excess